The fourth member of L.A.'s four-headed monster played alongside a full complement of stars on Monday night for just the 19th time this season. And for the 13th time in those 19 games, the Lakers lost, this time winding up on the wrong side of a 109-103 tilt with a Pacific Division rival, the Golden State Warriors.
Gasol managed to corral eight rebounds in his 22-plus minutes of work. And that's where the positives ended. He hit just 3-of-8 from the field and 1-of-4 at the free-throw line en route to seven points.
Believe it or not, that was actually an improvement over his first game back from a nearly two-month absence due to a torn plantar fascia in his right foot. In the Lakers' 103-100 loss to the Washington Wizards on March 22, a game in which L.A. squandered an 18-point lead, he finished the night with four points after an atrocious 2-of-10 showing from the field.
Prior to that Wizards game, Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said that he toyed with the idea of easing Gasol back into the lineup as a reserve, but moved him into the starting five because Gasol is "more comfortable that way," (according to Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com).
If D'Antoni's assessment of his seven-footer is accurate, then I'd hate to imagine what an uncomfortable Gasol would have looked like.
L.A.'s star-studded quartet—Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash—was the reason for its lofty preseason aspirations (via Chris Fedor of SportsRadioInterviews.com). But those four players have yet to find a win in the seven games that they've all been featured in the Lakers' starting lineup.
Whether D'Antoni is the right man to lead this unit is a pointless debate at this time of the year. He's the one tasked by the Lakers front office to lead these players, and it's far too late to make another coaching change, for this season at least.
Although, it has become blatantly clear that Gasol remains the hardest puzzle on L.A.'s roster for D'Antoni to solve. Of the Lakers' top seven most effective five-man lineups in terms of the plus-minus statistic, Gasol has been a part of just two of them (via NBA.com).
For a season that's gone as poorly as this year has for the 36-35 Lakers, it's not a question of who's responsible for the demise, but rather which player is least deserving of blame.
Bryant is the least of the team's worries. At age 34, he's posted his second-highest player efficiency rating in the last four seasons, 23.0, and the best effective field-goal percentage of his 17-year career, 50.9 (via Basketball-Reference.com).
Howard has battled inconsistency throughout his first year in the City of Angels, which has no doubt been compounded by his recovery from April 2012 back surgery and a nagging shoulder injury. But he's playing his best basketball of the season in the month of March, 17.1 points, 15.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game (via NBA.com), and looking far more like a Lakers solution than a problem.
Nash went through his own rough patch, but looks more comfortable sharing the backcourt with Bryant as he moves further away from his early-season leg fracture. He's dangerously close to another 50/40/90 campaign (49.1 FG%/ 43.2 3PT%/ 92.3 FT%), which would be the fifth time he's accomplished the feat in his 17-year career.
As for Gasol, though, the 2012-13 season has been nothing short of a nightmare.
His scoring average and field-goal percentage have hit new career lows for the 12th-year vet. His glasswork and free-throw shooting aren't far off from setting new basements, either.
What makes Gasol's struggles most glaring is the fact that they've almost appeared over night. His numbers had held largely consistent throughout his first three-plus seasons as a member of the Lakers before taking a drastic dive this season.
But D'Antoni can ill afford to give Gasol an Andris Biedrins-like expensive courtside seat. Regardless of the money left on his contract—Gasol is owed more than $19 million next season (via HoopsHype.com)—he's simply too talented to keep off the floor.
Perhaps Gasol's immediate future lies in a reserve role, no different from the one he voiced his displeasure with receiving earlier this season (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com).
The Lakers need a go-to player for the second unit. And more than that, they could desperately use another perimeter scoring threat in the starting five. A player like the one D'Antoni and Nash utilized during their previous run with the Phoenix Suns, a guy who can stretch the floor to give Howard the kind of spacing he saw in the Orlando Magic's spread offense.
Frankly, the Lakers need a player like the one D'Antoni has unsuccessfully tried to mold Gasol into.
The Lakers would love for Earl Clark to be that guy. He's got the size (6'10", 220 pounds) to fill the spot and the athleticism to work away from the basket. But Clark's sub-40-percent field-goal shooting in March and sub-30-percent three-point shooting over the last two months (via NBA.com) suggest he might end up being just a poorer rebounding version of Gasol.
D'Antoni has two options to mold his lineup. Neither of them are ideal, but at this point, the Lakers are simply searching for an adequate solution. Either the coach can promote the perimeter-oriented Antawn Jamison (35.2 three-point percentage) to his starting five, or he can add Jodie Meeks (37.0 three-point percentage) to his starting group and slide the physical Metta World Peace to the power-forward spot.
Well, either that, or he can continue to trot out Gasol with his star-studded starting lineup. And the Lakers can continue to hope that the Utah Jazz (35-36) and Dallas Mavericks (34-36) don't string together enough wins to overtake them for the Western Conference's eighth seed.
Gasol is a supremely talented player, one who would start on nearly any other team in the league.
But with this coach and these players around him, Gasol is a liability. One that could be pulling the plug on the Lakers' playoff lives without some serious adjustments.